Republicans May Finally Be Socially Distancing Themselves From Libertarianism
Published in The Washington Post
on March 30, 2020
President Trump’s extension Sunday of federal social distancing guidelines surely will reduce the coronavirus’s spread. It might, however, also begin to encourage mainstream Republicans to distance themselves in the future from libertarian-tinged economics.
It is difficult to underestimate the influence of libertarian principles on Republican economic policy. Nearly every economist or economic journalist revered by the party advocates for policies that are derived from libertarian impulses. In this worldview, individual freedom is the highest good and capable of near magical accomplishments. Let people do what they want, the story goes, and they will cure poverty, bring world peace and do better at managing social discord than any centrally planned government act can ever hope to accomplish.
These beliefs were at least partly behind efforts to persuade Trump to not extend the guidelines. The libertarians — or “classical liberals,” as they sometimes call themselves — argued that controls on personal liberty were too strict and that the magic of market exchanges would thus wither on the vine. As a result, they argued, the public health models saying hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of Americans would perish without the guidelines were off by orders of magnitude. The arguments were cloaked in statistics and cost-benefit analysis, but the moral impulse behind them was a devotion to individual liberty as the highest good.
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Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.